On March 5, 2020, the Department of Education issued guidance to institutions facing possible interruptions of study because of COVID-19. WCET’s Cheryl Dowd, Director of the WCET State Authorization Network, provided an overview of the guidance for WCET Frontiers. As of the morning of March 12th, a growing number of institutions, especially those on the west coast, have opted to at least temporarily suspend face-to-face instruction and transition coursework to remote delivery. The coronavirus close upAs educators involved with the complex development and delivery of online education, we know that offering a course or program online is not as simple as merely flipping a switch; there are complex instructional design and technological and regulatory issues evolved with high-quality online instruction. This use of educational technology to ensure the continuity of operations is certainly not new, but we are now seeing it deployed on an unprecedented scale. Today’s Frontiers post will examine the response of accreditors to COVID-19 and the use of online learning for institutional continuity of operations.

The Department of Education’s March 5th Guidance

The guidance issued by the Department of Education on March 5, 2020, focuses on federal financial aid compliance and addresses five scenarios:

  • Students unable to complete or begin a travel-abroad experience;
  • Full-time students who are no longer full-time because one or more classes (such as an internship, fieldwork, student teaching, or clinical rotation) have been cancelled due to COVID-19;
  • Students who miss classes due to being quarantined or sick due to COVID-19;
  • Campuses that temporarily stop offering face-to-face courses in order to slow or prevent the spread of COVID-19; and
  • Students enrolled in a foreign institution that has temporarily suspended operations due to COVID-19.

The tail of an airplane flying over a stormIn an effort to maintain continuity of academic operations, the Department announced that it is “providing broad approval to institutions to use online technologies to accommodate students on a temporary basis, without going through the regular approval process of the Department in the event that an institution is otherwise required to seek Departmental approval for the use or expansion of distance learning programs.”

Under normal circumstances, the approval to offer online education is a multistep process and also includes approval from an institution’s accreditor. Although the Department cannot unilaterally waive accreditor standards, it did note that it is “also permitting accreditors to waive their distance education review requirements for institutions working to accommodate students whose enrollment is otherwise interrupted as a result of COVID-19.”

Accreditors’ Response to COVID-19

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) currently recognizes seven regional accreditors, four faith-related accreditors, one national career-related accreditor, and 48 programmatic accreditors. What guidance have these organizations provided to their members regarding waivers of distance education review requirements as institutions move face-to-face courses online in response to COVID-19?

Regional Accreditors

  • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges Western Association of Schools and Colleges (ACCJC WASC): Per a March 9th communication to its members, ACCJC WASC announced it was “waiving review and technology requirements for distance learning and correspondence education at institutions affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Distance education instructors must maintain regular, substantive communication with students.”
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC): HLC has shared a brief statement to its home page affirming that it is “following the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations” and will “continue to track this issue and inform stakeholders as needed.
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE): Per a March 9th communication to its members, MSCHE announced it “will temporarily waive the substantive change requirements for distance education and contractual agreements put in place in response to the coronavirus.” To facilitate that waiver, MSCHE requests that institutions provide by April 1, 2020, formal written notice of distance education measures, temporary agreements with other institutions, changes to the academic calendar, and temporary sites for instruction.
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE): NECHE is currently handling any waivers of distance education requirements on a case-by-case basis and has not yet released a statement.
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU): WCET is unaware of any public comments or guidance from NWCCU but will update as soon as that information becomes available.
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC): Per a direct March 9, 2020 communication to its members, SACSCOC instructed that institutions that do not already have approval to offer distance education must send an email or letter to Dr. Belle Wheelan requesting a waiver in accordance with the Department of Education’s March 5th
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC): Per an update posted to its website, WSCUC writes that institutions “are in the best position to make accommodations so that students and employees can be as safe as possible” and “leaves these important decision to individual campuses, believing that each will adhere to its learning objectives/goals as they can reasonably be achieved in the climate in which you are operating.” The statement also refers members back to the Department of Education’s March 5th

Faith-Related and Career-Related Accreditors

At this time, none of the four faith-related accreditors have issued public guidance for their members related to distance education accrediting regulations. Because the one career-related accreditor, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, deals only with institutions offering distance education, it has not needed to issue guidance related to the transitioning of face-to-face instruction online in response to COVID-19.

Programmatic Accreditors

Most of the 48 programmatic accreditors recognized by CHEA have not issued public guidance to their members. The following accreditors, though, have addressed COVID-19:

WCET Resources on COVID-19

This is a highly dynamic situation and WCET will continue to update this post as needed. As always, we recommend that you directly contact your accreditor for specific guidance. WCET will continue to provide resources and updates related to COVID-19.

image of a virus and the text "WCET is continuously compiling content about the impact of COVID19 on higher education

Please see the WCET COVID-19 webpage which lists several resources including:

  • Dissemination of Information and Continuity of Operations, a joint statement by WCET, OLC, UPCEA, and Quality Matters
  • Joint Response Regarding COVID-19 and Advice on Transitioning Face-to-Face Courses Online, a March 12, 2020 joint statement by WCET, OLC, Quality Matters, and UPCEA
  • Videos that discuss general preparedness; current progression and warnings across the United States; strategies for messaging students, staff, and faculty; and information on moving courses online including financial implications and compliance concerns. Members can access the videos on YouTube in the 1:1 interview channel.

WCET suggests that you review the Department of Education’s guidance as well as its COVID-19 Information and Resources page along with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Interim Guidance for Administrators of US Institutions of Higher Education.

WCET is committed to helping all of its members navigate these unprecedented challenges and will continue to share and update information as it becomes available.


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Van Davis
Policy and Planning Consultant WCET
vdavis@wiche.edu    @historydoc


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